Tackling the U.S. / North Korea Standoff

The Relevance of the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan: Part Two.

(Click here to read Part One.)

Whither Disarmament?

In the early 1970s, the then ongoing U.S. war against Vietnam had a profound impact on all concerned human-beings across the world. In September 1972, an International NGO Conference on Disarmament was organized in Geneva with about 250 representatives of NGOs and Governments. Two years later, at the initiative of the International Peace Bureau (IPB), an international meeting was organized in Bradford, Britain, from 29 Aug to 01 Sep, 1974 entitled “Preparations for the UN World Disarmament Conference”. The Bradford Proposals, which focused on General and Complete Disarmament as the prime objective of the United Nations, were welcomed by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).[1]  NAM in turn used its clout within the U.N. to ensure that the first Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Disarmament was held in 1978.[2]  Meanwhile, Sean MacBride, President of the International Peace Bureau (IPB), who shared the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize, while delivering the Nobel Lecture on 12 Dec, 1974 in Oslo, was highly critical of the concerted attempts that were made to sideline the issue of general and complete disarmament within the United Nations. Therefore, in his speech he emphasized as follows:

“General and Complete Disarmament: This was the accepted aim of all governments and of the United Nations up to the end of 1961. Why has this objective been dropped? Why is it never even mentioned now? The extent to which agreement had been reached in 1961 may be gauged from the two opening paragraphs of the joint Soviet-United States statement of 20 September 1961: … The Soviet and American draft treaties prepared at that period represented an extremely wide measure of agreement and few points of controversy remained. Yet, in a matter of a very few years these objectives were dropped and replaced by the “cold war”. Is it not time that we got back to General and Complete Disarmament?”[3]

Thirteen years after the United Nations had unanimously adopted the Joint (US-USSR) Statement of Agreed Principles for Disarmament Negotiations, Nobel Laureate Sean MacBride was forced to raise the following questions: “Why has this objective been dropped? Why is it never even mentioned now?” Moreover, according to him: “The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty [PTBT] and the Non-Proliferation Treaty have been of little value but have been used to defuse public anxiety.” [4]  It was under these circumstances that the first Special Session of the UN General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament (SSOD-I) was held in 1978 followed by SSOD-II and SSOD-III in 1982 and 1988 respectively. While there is a lot of hyperbole about “General and Complete Disarmament” in the resolutions and concluding document adopted at SSOD-I [5] and SSOD-II [6], the complete absence of even a passing reference to the historical UNGA Resolution No.1722 (XVI) of 20 Dec, 1961 [regarding the Joint (U.S.-USSR) Statement of Agreed Principles for Disarmament Negotiations] in the same is very intriguing. Equally intriguing is the fact that the very phrase “General and Complete Disarmament” is not mentioned even once in the report of SSOD-III [7]  although the same was repeatedly stated in the Special Report that the Disarmament Commission had placed before the UN General Assembly on the eve of the Third Special Session Devoted to Disarmament.[8]  It was left to India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to refocus attention on the issue of general and complete disarmament. While drawing attention to his “Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear Weapon Free and Non-Violent World Order” before SSOD-III on 09 Jun, 1988, Rajiv Gandhi had said:  “Our plan calls upon the international community to negotiate a binding commitment to general and complete disarmament. This commitment must be total. It must be without reservation.” [9] Unfortunately, the international community had remained largely indifferent to India’s considered proposal from then until now.

It is deeply disheartening that, fifty-seven years after the adoption of Resolution No.1722 (XVI) of 20 Dec, 1961 by the UN General Assembly, most of the peace movements across the world appear to be completely unfamiliar with the phrase “general and complete disarmament under effective international control”. Almost three generations of peace activists are totally unaware of the McCloy-Zorin Accords of 20 Sept, 1961. Even a cursory examination of the voluminous literature brought out by the leading peace movements across the world over the last five decades would reveal that it is only very rarely that efforts, if any, were ever made to make even a passing remark about the existence of this vital document. This level of collective amnesia about a historical agreement is absolutely astounding to say the least! It is equally unfortunate that after the brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on 21 May, 1991, successive governments in India have never made any attempt to seriously propagate his Action Plan to end the nuclear threat and to collectively proceed towards the goal of general and complete disarmament. Thus, the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan has been practically lying dormant for the last three decades.

Current Situation

Good sense has at last dawn upon the U.S. Government that negotiation is the most appropriate way to resolve the ongoing nuclear confrontation with North Korea. One of the best roadmaps drawn up so far for conducting negotiations in this regard is a proposal put forward by a team of experts from Stanford University, USA. The team is headed by Professor Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico and the only known U.S. scientist to have seen in person North Korea’s facility for enriching uranium. According to the team’s roadmap:

“- Insisting on immediate CVID [denuclearization: complete (or permanent), verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement] along a “Libya model” to eliminate everything up front and virtually all at once is tantamount to a North Korean surrender scenario. It is unimaginable that Kim will agree to a Libya model.

– The scale of the programs is also dramatically different. Libya never got close to nuclear weapons. North Korea has a threatening nuclear arsenal and a huge complex….

– …we propose a phased risk management approach to denuclearization by identifying those assets and activities that pose the greatest risk and must be eliminated (…) and those that can be managed (…). The mosaic is meant to provide an overall sense of what’s manageable and what must be eliminated. The phases constitute what might be possible during the first year, the “halt” stage, in years 2 to 5, the “roll back” stage, and in years 6 to 10, the “eliminate” stage….

– The approach suggested here is based on our belief that North Korea will not give up its weapons and its weapons program until its security can be assured. Such assurance cannot be achieved simply by an American promise or an agreement on paper; it will require a substantial period of coexistence and interdependence.” [10]

These are excellent proposals but with a narrow objective, i.e., to denuclearize only North Korea. However, the team that has put forward these proposals have advanced no plausible reasons as to why the same framework for phased abolition of North Korean nuclear weapons cannot be concurrently applied to every other present and potential nuclear weapon state as well. Indeed, these proposals are almost similar to the roadmap that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had drawn out thirty years ago for abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. The only difference is that, unlike the Stanford University team’s proposals, Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan not only encompassed all nuclear weapon states but also it was placed within the larger framework of general and complete disarmament.

As the Stanford team has emphasized, assuring security to North Korea is of paramount importance. In this regard, it may be recalled that, as per the 1994 Agreed Framework signed between the U.S and North Korea in Geneva, the U.S. had made a commitment to provide “formal assurances to North Korea against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the US.”[11] However, the fact is that during the last twenty-four years, the U.S. has failed to provide any such formal assurances. The failure on the part of the U.S. to undertake the No-Use-Pledge was the single biggest stumbling block in the way to dissuading North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Indeed, if the U.S. had undertaken the No-Use-Pledge way back in 1946, the USSR in all probability may not have acquired nuclear weapons. In short, the No-Use-Pledge is the most important first step for proceeding towards the goal of nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan had proposed: “Conclusion of a convention to outlaw the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons pending their elimination.” [12]

Are there any valid reasons as to why SSOD-III had failed to accede to Rajiv Gandhi’s proposal to outlaw the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons? Was it an outlandish proposal? Are there any conceivable circumstances under which nuclear weapons can be legitimately used to exterminate millions of people? Then why is there this reluctance to declare the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as a crime against humanity? These questions were raised forty-four years ago by none other than Nobel Laureate Sean MacBride, who was appalled by the fact that:

 “The use of the most cruel, terrible and indiscriminate weapon of all time, the nuclear weapons, is not even outlawed. The manufacture and development of these doomsday weapons throughout the world is regarded as “normal” and “quite respectable”. One of the frightening, if not shocking, aspect of this particular breakdown in our public standards of morality has been the comparative silence of many of the established guardians of humanitarian law.”

Sean MacBride then went on to add:

“If any meaningful credibility is to be given to humanitarian law or to the ban on nuclear weapons, the first concrete measure which should be taken is to OUTLAW THE USE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS. A simple Convention or article in a Convention outlawing the USE of nuclear weapons would be a first simple step.” [Original emphasis] [13]

Why has this simple step not been taken all these years? There was a far deep strategic reason for not doing so; it was to prevent the “impetus toward total prohibition of nuclear weapons.” Such reasoning may seem outlandish but that was, indeed, the official position of the United States as revealed by George Bunn, who had served as general counsel of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) from 1961 to 1969, and who was one of the negotiators of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In a detailed article titled “The Legal Status of US Negative Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear Weapon States”, Bunn has laid bare the facts as follows:

“During the UN General Assembly debates on disarmament in the fall of 1966, 46 non-aligned countries [including India] introduced a draft resolution that invited the nuclear weapon states “to give an assurance that they will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States.” ACDA sought authority from President Johnson for the US representative to the United Nations to vote for the resolution.… The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed ACDA’s draft: According to a State Department cable sent to President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk, who were abroad when the issue arose, the Chiefs’ “opposition was based on the reason that such a non-use assurance could provide an impetus toward total prohibition of nuclear weapons.” [14]

Therefore, there was no ambiguity at all as to why the U.S. is unwilling to give a categorical no-use assurance till date. U.S. allies – UK, France and Israel – have also taken a similar position. While the USSR had given a no-use assurance to non-nuclear weapon states in 1978, Russia reneged from that commitment in 1993. On the other hand, China, India[15], Pakistan and North Korea have given categorical no-use assurances to non-nuclear weapon states.[16]  Unless the rest of humanity exert considerable pressure and compel the U.S. and other naysayers to undertake the No-Use-Pledge, there is absolutely no hope that the issue of the impending nuclear threat would ever be addressed. Make-believe treaties such as the NPT, the Prohibition Treaty, etc., can only help mask the critical issue (the absence of No-Use-Pledge) that is blocking all progress towards nuclear disarmament. Moreover, the issue of nuclear disarmament is not a stand-alone matter; it has to be necessarily addressed as part of the larger question of general and complete disarmament – which is precisely what the Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan had proposed.

Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was deeply concerned that:

“In consequence of doctrines of deterrence, international relations have been gravely militarized. Astronomical sums are being invested in ways of dealing death. Ever new means of destruction continue to be invented. The best of our scientific talent and the bulk of our technological resources are devoted to maintaining and upgrading this awesome ability to obliterate ourselves. A culture of armaments and threats and violence has become pervasive.” 

Therefore, he was of the firm view that:

“Nuclear deterrence is the ultimate expression of the philosophy of terrorism: holding humanity hostage to the presumed security needs of a few…. We cannot accept the logic that a few nations have the right to pursue their security by threatening the survival of humankind…. Nor is it acceptable that those who possess nuclear weapons are freed of all controls while those without nuclear weapons are policed against their production.”

Thus, according to him:

“A genuine process of disarmament, leading to a substantial reduction in military expenditure, is bound to promote the prosperity of all nations of the globe. Disarmament accompanied by coexistence will open up opportunities for all countries, whatever their socio-economic systems, whatever their levels of development.”

On the basis of such universal outlook, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi unveiled his Action Plan before the Third Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD-III) of the UN General Assembly on 09 Jun 1988 with these words:

“We urge the international community immediately to undertake negotiations with a view to adopting a time-bound Action Plan to usher in a world order free of nuclear weapons and rooted in non-violence. We have submitted such an Action Plan to this special session on disarmament of the United Nations General Assembly…. While nuclear disarmament constitutes the centrepiece of each stage of the Plan, this is buttressed by collateral and other measures to further the process of disarmament. We have made proposals for banning other weapons of mass destruction. We have suggested steps for precluding the development of new weapons systems based on emerging technologies. We have addressed ourselves to the task of reducing conventional arms and forces to the minimum levels required for defensive purposes. We have outlined ideas for the conduct of international relations in a world free of nuclear weapons…. Our objective should be nothing less than a general reduction of conventional arms across the globe to levels dictated by minimum needs of defence. The process would require a substantial reduction in offensive military capability, as well as confidence-building measures to preclude surprise attacks.” [17] 

Rajiv Gandhi was quite insistent that “all nuclear-weapon States must participate in the process of nuclear disarmament”.[18]  The essential features of a suitably updated version of his Action Plan that is appropriate for the current situation would be as follows:

(1) All nuclear weapon states to:

(a)  undertake No-Use-Pledge forthwith until conclusion of a convention to outlaw the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons pending their elimination;

(b)  de-alert all deployed nuclear weapons;

(c)  withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad;

(d)  cease direct or indirect transfer to other states of nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and weapon-grade fissionable material;

(e)  freeze research, testing and production of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

(2) Non-nuclear weapon powers to undertake not to cross the threshold into the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

(3) Complete ban on introduction of new types of weapons of mass destruction.

(4) Establishment of an integrated multilateral verification system under the aegis of the United Nations as an integral part of a strengthened multilateral framework required to ensure peace and security during the process of disarmament as well as in a nuclear weapons free world.

(5) Agreement within a multilateral framework on banning the testing, development, development and storage of all space weapons.

(6) Disbandment of military alliances.

(7) Closure of all foreign military bases and recall of all military forces deployed abroad.

(8) Global convention for negotiating “conventional” arms reduction, including deep cuts in military budgets and drastic restrictions on arms trade.

(9) Negotiations on and establishment of a comprehensive global security system to sustain a world without nuclear weapons. This would include institutional steps to ensure the effective implementation of the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations relating to the non-use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the right of every state to pursue its own path of development.

(10) The strengthening of the United Nations system and related multilateral forums.

(11) Reduction of all conventional forces to minimum defensive levels.

(12) Conscious attempt to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and friendship by fiercely opposing the historically unprecedented militarization of international relations during the last seven decades, which has not only enhanced the danger of nuclear war but also militated against the emergences of the structure of peace, progress and stability envisaged in the Character of the United Nations.

(13) The new structure of international relations has to be based on scrupulous adherence to the Panchsheel principles of peaceful co-existence and the Character of the United Nations. It is necessary to evolve stronger and more binding mechanisms for the settlement of disputes, regional and international. The diversity among nations must be recognized and respected. The right of each nation to choose its own socio-economic system must be assured.

While the above cited steps provide the broad contours of the Action Plan to begin the process of disarmament, the specific details of each step would have to be worked out at the appropriate stage of execution. Some of these steps could be carried out concurrently as well.  Thus, the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan, which places nuclear disarmament within the larger framework of general and complete disarmament, is essentially identical to the US-USSR Joint Statement of Agreed Principles for Disarmament Negotiations of 20 Sep, 1961.

The Crucial First Step

As noted earlier, undertaking a pledge not to use nuclear weapons (No-Use-Pledge) is the most crucial first step. Not only is there no conceivable situation that necessitates the use of nuclear weapons but also there can be no justification for exterminating millions of human beings under any circumstances. To facilitate this process of No-Use-Pledge, it could be accompanied by a No-War-Pact as well as an undertaking never to support terrorist groups (which are invariably armed and funded by state agencies). As soon as the United States revives its commitment regarding No-Use-Pledge that it had made to North Korea in 1994 [19] (and extends that commitment to all other nations as well), all the other Naysayers are also bound to fall in line. Therefore, the U.S.-North Korea confrontation should not be viewed in isolation as a mere bilateral issue; it has to be viewed in the context of general and complete disarmament, which is in the interest of all nations.

In this regard, it is heartening to note that the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has brought out an interesting publication in 2016 titled “Rethinking General and Complete Disarmament in the Twenty-first Century”. The articles featured in this publication were originally presented at the seminar titled “Comprehensive Approaches for Disarmament in the Twenty-first Century: Rethinking General and Complete Disarmament”, organized by the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2015. While the views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States, the views expressed in it does underline the nature of the current turmoil within the United Nations secretariat on the issue. Thus, in his forward to the said publication, Mr.Kim Won-soo, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, has noted as follows:

“To many, general and complete disarmament sounds like an anachronism from the early days of the cold war. Yet, it is increasingly evident that our common aspirations for peace, vital humanitarian imperatives, human rights and sustainable development require us to find new ways to transform that vision into a new paradigm for sustainable security through the general demilitarization of international affairs.” [20]

Far from any attempt at demilitarization of international affairs, the UN Security Council has regrettably abdicated its responsibility to formulate necessary plans for complying with the objectives laid out in Article 26 of the United Nations Charter, which states as follows:

“In order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, the Security Council shall be responsible for formulating … plans to be submitted to the Members of the United Nations for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.” [21]

The UN Security Council’s failure to establish a system for regulation of armaments does not appear to be due to unavoidable circumstances; it appears to be the result of a deliberate attempt at side-stepping the issue. The power of the armaments industry is all pervasive in this regard as peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride had underlined in his Nobel Lecture in 1974. Alerting humanity about the prevailing threat he said:

“Peaceful conditions in the world are not welcome to the arms industry. General and Complete Disarmament would spell disaster to the industrial-military complexes ….. It would be foolish to underrate the massive influence of the organized lobbies of military-industrial complexes in the United States and Western Europe. They constitute an unseen and unmentioned powerful force operating silently in the corridors of NATO and of most Western governments. Their resources are unlimited and their influence is great. This constitutes a huge vested interest which works silently against General and Complete Disarmament.”

Therefore, Sean MacBride went on to add:

“…the time has come for “WE THE PEOPLE . ..” referred to in the Charter of the United Nations to assert ourselves and to demand the outlawing of all nuclear weapons and the achievement of General and Complete Disarmament.” [Original emphasis] [22]

It is extremely regrettable that, during the last 44 years, the bulk of the world’s peace movements have failed to pay heed to these words of wisdom from Sean MacBride, who was Chairperson of the International Peace Bureau (IPB) from 1968 to 1974 and President of IPB from 1974 to 1985. Thus, the leading peace movements’ biggest disservice to humanity is the failure to highlight the demand for outlawing the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as the crucial first step towards nuclear disarmament. While the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons of 2017 purportedly has such a provision, it is hugely disappointing to note that its provisions on outlawing the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a matter of choice; there is no attempt on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states to compel the nuclear weapon states to make a binding commitment never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Its provisions are akin to the dubious Article-VI of the NPT with the option of never implementing the same in perpetuity.

On the contrary, Rajiv Gandhi was among the few who tried to echo the considered views of Sean MacBride in this regard. Twenty-five years after the sidelining of the McCloy-Zorin Accords on General and Complete Disarmament (in 1963, with the signing of the PTBT), Rajiv Gandhi had the foresight to pinpoint, as Sean MacBride did,  that outlawing the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons was the most crucial first step towards attaining the goal of nuclear disarmament. This is precisely the key issue in the U.S.-North Korea nuclear standoff: mutual undertaking never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against each other as the first “security guarantee”/ confidence building measure. As per the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan, the same would be applicable not only to every other nuclear weapon state. That apart, nuclear weapon states would be compelled to give a no-use guarantee to all non-nuclear weapon states as well. Similarly, the issue of “complete nuclearization” cannot be confined to the Korean Peninsula alone; as long as nuclear weapons are kept in readiness to target every part of the globe, there is no way that the Korean Peninsula would ever remain free from a potential nuclear strike. Therefore, the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan remains the most suitable proposal not only for addressing the problem of nuclear weapons but also for advancing the cause of general and complete disarmament – a challenge which was confined to the cold storage ever since the signing of the PTBT 55 years ago. It is hoped that the peace movements across the world will stop being deluded by make-believe treaties such as the NPT and the Prohibition Treaty and repose their faith in general and complete disarmament as enunciated by the McCloy-Zorin Accords of 1961 and by the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988 as the only solution to the threat confronting humanity today. If by any chance North Korea is deluded into disarming unilaterally, it would be disastrous not only for North Korea but also for the rest of humanity including concerned sections within the U.S. A concurrent undertaking by all nuclear weapon states never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances is the first right step to overcome the present crisis.

Click here to read Part One.


[1]. See: Rainer Santi, 100 Years of Peace MakingInternational Peace Bureau, Geneva, 1991.

[2]. NAM took a formal decision in this regard at its Fifth Conference in Colombo in 1976. See: Para 139, Colombo Declaration 1976.

[3] Sean MacBride, Nobel Lecture, “The Imperatives of Survival”, 12 Dec, 1974.

[4]. Sean MacBride (1974)

[5] Resolutions, SSOD-I, 30 Jun, 1978.

[6]. Concluding Document, SSOD-II, 10 Jul, 1982.

[7]. Report, SSOD-III, 25 Jun, 1988.

[8]. Special Report of the Disarmament Commission, SSOD-III, 28 May, 1988.

[9]. Rajiv Gandhi, Address before UNGA, SSOD-III, 09 Jun, 1988, at: , p.14

[10]. Siegfried S. Hecker, Robert L. Carlin and Elliot A. Serbin, “A technically-informed roadmap for North Korea’s denuclearization”, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, California, USA, 28 May, 2018, pp.5-7.

[11]. IAEA, Agreed Framework of 21 October 1994 Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Geneva, Section – III (1), at:

[12]. Rajiv Gandhi, Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear Weapon Free and Non-Violent World Order, UNGA, SSOD-III, Annexure-I, 20 May, 1988, para 2.1.b.i, p.4

[13]. Sean MacBride (1974)

[14]. George Bunn, The Nonproliferation ReviewVol 4, Issue 3, 1997, pp.3-4.

[15]. There appears to be an attempt on the part of the present Indian Government to wriggle out of that commitment. See: Statement of India’s then Defense Minister, Mr.Manohar Parrikar, 10 Nov, 2016, which is sufficiently vague.

[16]. Arms Control Association (USA), Nuclear Declaratory Policy and Negative Security Assurances,  March 2018.

[17]. Rajiv Gandhi (09 Jun, 1988), pp.13-14

[18]. Rajiv Gandhi (09 Jun, 1988), p.14

[19]. IAEA (1994)

[20]. UNODA, Rethinking General and Complete Disarmament in the Twenty-first Century, UNODA Occasional Papers No. 28, UN Publications, New York, October 2016.

[21]. United Nations Charter 1945, Article 26.

[22]. Sean MacBride (1974)

N.D. Jayaprakash is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims).